A Comprehensive Approach to Investigate CO2 Reduction Electrocatalysts at High Current Densities

Gastón O. Larrazábal, Ming Ma, Brian Seger*

*Corresponding author for this work

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As electrochemical CO2 reduction studies progress from beaker or H-cell devices operating at low current densities to gas diffusion electrode (GDE)-based devices that sustain high reaction rates and provide an avenue toward commercialization, the overall system becomes significantly more complex. While the current densities may vary for the different approaches, it is essential to maintain the same scientific rigor when analyzing these systems. The mass transfer optimizations used in GDE based approaches necessarily add complexity and provide new challenges that need to be analyzed and overcome interms of both engineering as well as analysis techniques. This Account puts into perspective our recent works analyzing high current density CO2 electrolysis performance via a comprehensive investigation of the entire system. In particular, we show the importance of monitoring (i) the gasflow rates at the outlet of the cathodic compartment, (ii) the anodicgas composition for CO2/O2 ratio, and (iii)pH variations in the electrolyte. A rigorous analysis of these parameters allows us to achieve a complete carbon balance, in addition to accounting for a total of 100% Faradaic efficiency. By analyzing both the cathode outlet and anodic CO2:O2 ratio, we demonstrate that these methods can be used to self-validate results providing robustness. We show that this analysis approach holds for both a zero-gap membrane electrode assembly device and a flowing-catholyte device. In addition, a comprehensive monitoring approach reveals that having an alkaline environment in the vicinity of the cathode can absorb substantial amounts of CO2, which may greatly distort Faradaic efficiencies if not accounted for. While monitoring the outlet flowrate of a reactor appears a simple task, the mixed gases and smallflow rates in lab-scale reactors can add challenges and we  discuss various methods to measure these flow rates. While pH is well-known to play a role in the activity and selectivity of CO2 reduction, we demonstrate that (i) the operational pH is not necessarily the pH of the initial electrolyte, (ii) there are long transients in pH before steady state is reached (on the order of hours), and (iii) the pH of the anolyte and catholyte can be significantly different over the duration of the electrolysis. By varying the membrane type in a flowing-catholyte reactor (anion exchange, cation exchange, or bipolar membrane), we can use this monitoring approach to quantitatively identify the major differences in CO2 reduction performance related to these distinct membrane types. The overall conclusion is that complex engineering processes entail that a thorough monitoring of parameters is necessary to accurately analyze the performance of high current density electrochemical CO2 reduction devices.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAccounts of Materials Research
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)220-229
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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